by Hatem Bazian
Three of Edward Said’s books are as timely today as the day they were published almost 40 years ago: Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), and Covering Islam (1981). The three constitute Said’s trilogy that focused on literary and artistic representation in the service of empire, colonial dispossession, and the media shaping and reproducing Orientalist tropes. Said’s contributions are an invaluable source for anyone attempting to deconstruct the ebbs and flows of events and development in the Arab and Muslim worlds. At the same time, the three books offer a strong critique of Western policies and public discourse that purport to cover the “East” as a separate and mysterious place filled with irrationality.
Observing the daily events in the Arab and Muslim worlds, one is at a loss to comprehend the sheer destruction and the snuffing out of hope faced by a multitude of peoples – 1.4 billion, to be precise. Said’s writing intuitively de-constructed the racialized lens used by Western academics, press, and policymakers to justify their continued disregard of the needs and well-being of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Critically, Said’s work reframed and provided a more in-depth history to the ongoing conflicts in the region, including a centering of the role played by colonialism in shaping the region. The currently unfolding events provide an appropriate time to bring Said’s views into play to possibly understand the current deepening crisis in the Arab and Muslim worlds. What would be a Saidian response and commentary on the contemporary unfolding events, and what lines of analysis should be pursued? It is important to recall that Said’s Orientalism, Covering Islam and The Question of Palestine emerged around and in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Lebanese Civil War, and the Iranian Revolution.
At the time, Western academics and press reports focused on the now, just like the crop of contemporary Orientalist practitioners that cover the unfolding events and the disintegration of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen without examining the long road that led to the current conflicts at hand. They are writing and reporting on the subject matter as if they are dealing with a lab and operating clinically to describe the small and big movements without ever asking how, why, and what are the internal and external stimuli that cause the particular movements.
What would Said say about the ongoing carnage, both the physical and, more importantly, the mental disfiguration masquerading as sound academic research and intellectual pursuit? Despite the passage of almost 40 years since Said’s monumental works and hundreds, if not thousands, of papers, articles, editorials, conferences, and special reports about what we broadly call the Arab and Muslim worlds, the political elite has learned and applied less of what supposedly was studied.
The trilogy of misrepresentation is found among media talking heads, empire’s embedded academics, and political elites who daily unleash a barrage of obfuscation and distortions and sensationalize the Arab and Muslim worlds. Current movies, books, and public discourses have repackaged every Orientalist trope and distortion into a new Islamophobic and racist entertainment industry that feasts on a heavy dose of the racialized Arab and Muslim figure as the all-encompassing evil villain threatening life itself.
Existing and newly formed academic fields with a plethora of embedded intellectuals have helped refine and produce the new crop of Orientalists who are committed to documenting the Arab and Muslim subject as best he/she can never imagine and then offer a manifest destiny to bring civilizations to the purported subhuman. Said’s focus on the role of the intellectual is pertinent today since embedded academics are feasting on empire’s trough filled with grants and projects intended to study the exotic Arab and Muslim subject so as to understand its proclivity to resist. Indeed, the role of the intellectual has been eroded due to the encroachment of power, capitalism, and the narrowly constructed interests that pass for academia today, which is a form of refined sophistry and preoccupation with access to power circles and upward mobility.
The Orientalist imaginary still captures the minds of many a dreamer of grandeur in the West, and a campaign afoot to discover, document, and civilize the East for its sub-humanness necessitates the never-ending intervention. Said’s Orientalist of the past has produced an emboldened crop that utilizes an ideological and material “shock and awe” epistemic to civilize the “barbarians” at the gates of civilizations. The grotesquely crafted binary at the root of the clash of civilizations has found a new and emboldened lease on life, and a cadre of well-polished salesmen and women have taken to the airwaves to frame, rally, and poison public sentiments. Said wrote about the clash of ignorance in response to Bernard Lewis’ and Samuel Huntington’s initial thesis, but today their ideas are driving elite policies and infecting public sentiments. U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric is the crude version of the sophisticated dons of academia and the think-tank industrial Orientalist complex that regurgitates the same distortions from the distant past.
A volatile Orientalist toxic mix is seamlessly wedded into deep and unrestrained hostility and otherization directed at everything and anything related to Islam or Muslims. In addition, Palestinians and Palestine are treated with vitriolic animosity coupled with a total disregard for their lives and well-being that brings Said’s trilogy to focus like no other place. Astonishingly, a U.S. president supported by European coalition partners and Arab despots invaded Iraq, causing millions of deaths and destruction beyond imagination, but the Muslim subject is posited as the violent one needing to explain his/her propensity toward violence. Palestinians in Gaza are bombed by Israel into oblivion with the wanton targeting of civilians and infrastructure, but the world is silent, and Benjamin Netanyahu is welcomed with the red carpet!
More critically, who should be held responsible for the ongoing chaos and the emergence of Daesh after the collapse of a sovereign state, Iraq? Who should be responsible for the ongoing siege on Gaza? If democracy is the desired and ideal political system championed by Orientalists, Zionists, and the embedded intellectuals, then why oppose it in Egypt and Tunisia, and aid those in the region that are intent on disrupting the march toward freedom, dignity, and justice?
Said would feel the torment for what has befallen Palestine and the destruction thrust upon the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. He would denounce the utter impotence of the Palestinian Authority and fight to not forget the security coordination to protect the illegal settlers and settlements. Palestine’s circumstances directly emerge from the Orientalist machinations and the never-ending specter of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved the Ottoman Empire into the existing figment of independent states ruled by sorry excuses for leadership. The colonially nurtured Arab and Muslim ruling elites are still suckling on the metaphorical colonial bosoms and administering punishment to their own populations and fomenting wars against neighboring states so as to keep the global military-industrial machine humming at their expense. Said would lament the cowardice of the intellectuals, the vanity of the political elites, and the arrogance of the powerful who set the world ablaze in pursuit of wealth and total domination.